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Judge expected to issue order barring Harrisburg school board from entering into contracts

Harrisburg school district administration building

A Dauphin County judge is expected to issue an order stopping the Harrisburg school district from entering into certain contracts without the express consent of the district’s chief recovery officer.

At an hourlong court hearing on Friday afternoon, Judge William Tully said he was prepared to issue an order that would prevent the school board from acting on certain contracts and other legally binding matters, in anticipation of a June 17 hearing that could place the district into state receivership.

Tully seemed to reject the principal argument of district Solicitor James Ellison, who said that, even if the school board entered into contracts over the next couple of weeks, those contracts potentially could be unwound if the district were placed into receivership.

Tully, however, pointed out that that undoing those contracts would require litigation, which would end up unnecessarily costing the taxpayers of Harrisburg.

“That’s why this injunction is probably going to be granted, because that’s where the harm is,” Tully said.

He indicated that he would draft the order to allow the district to enter into contracts only with the explicit approval of Dr. Janet Samuels, the district’s chief recovery officer.

Last Monday, education Secretary Pedro Rivera filed a petition with the court requesting a three-year state receivership and asking that Samuels be named the receiver. The hearing on the petition is slated for June 17, and Tully then has 10 days to approve or deny it.

Immediately after the petition was filed, the current school board called a special meeting for unspecified “personnel” matters, leading some to believe that the board wanted to quickly pass long-term contracts for the district superintendent and solicitor.

Today, Tully also called into question Ellison’s reasoning for that special meeting, which was stopped last night after Tully issued a temporary injunction to prevent it from happening before today’s hearing.

Ellison said that the meeting was called so the board could approve a potential settlement with Premier Arts & Sciences Charter School, which would allow the threatened school to continue operating, and, in the process, approve a smattering of faculty contracts.

Tully, though, was not satisfied with that answer. He cited the board’s repeated reliance on special meetings, its alleged lack of transparency and the fact that the agenda for the special meeting was posted just hours before it was to occur.

“That timetable had a smell to it,” Tully said.

Today’s hearing also brought to light that the state’s petition for receivership is likely to be granted. Tully described the state’s burden of proof as a “low bar” to meet, as state law allows for receivership unless the judge determines that the request is “arbitrary” or “capricious.”

As the hearing ended, the crowd of about 50 people broke into applause with the belief that the judge would grant the emergency order preventing the school district from entering into contracts.

“I am extremely pleased,” said Jayne Buchwach, who, last month, won the Democratic nomination for a school board seat. “And I don’t feel badly for Mr. Ellison.”

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